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Wed, 16 Sep 2009 03:01
The Poetry Business publishes books, pamphlets and audio under the Smith/Doorstop imprint, and publishes literary magazine The North. It also runs Writing Days, the Writing School and the original Book & Pamphlet Competition.
The Book Depository: What do you see as your primary market?
The Poetry Business: We have a very large database of people interested in poetry, which is not the same as a list of poetry-buyers, though there is some cross-over. Actually I think people like buying poetry books. Real people too I mean, not just poets (who make up most of our database).
It's heartening that you start with this question, and it's the sort of thing that Arts Counil England quite properly are keen on us being interested in, and it does occupy us periodically. Markets come and go -- that is sad about the Borders closures, for instance, and I remember when Watersones regularly stocked our titles. Even so, like every poetry publisher, we're really only interested in poems and to some extent poets. Fortunately, we do want to do the best we can for our writers, and that includes selling them. Selling them is easier than selling their books. Readings and all the ancillary bits & bats, workshops, Arvons, competition judging, these all bring in income for poets and incidentally mean booksales. Readings sell books directly, the others build towards sales at your end, the bookshop end, don't they?
The Book Depository: What are the principal challenges/opportunities you see at the moment in the business of publishing books?
The Poetry Business: Audio and e-books are interesting, and we're taking a few tentative steps that way, though I don't know if there's a market. And in fact with the internet and print-on-demand it's never been easier to get poetry out there, especially bad poetry -- and this quantitive easing is a threat as well as an opportunity. Even in book form, it's often clear nobody's read, let alone edited a lot of the verse jostling for attention. Which underlines why people tend to steer clear of poetry, and makes you wonder why more poets aren't beaten up. It's important to build trust with readers, and indeed to build up a readership.
The Book Depository: What brings you to the decision to publish a particular title/author?
The Poetry Business: We have to really love a book to publish it. With so few resources -- in terms of marketing etc -- we simply can't afford to publish more than we do. Also, we've only got so much time to edit the poems -- there's only me and Ann doing that -- and depending on how you look at it we're either assiduous editors or control freaks, working with an author over weeks or months, or years. But I should say it is working with an author, and they're always really in the driving seat.
Like every poetry publisher, we have better judgement than every other poetry publisher, especially when it comes to knowing what's genuine. I also like to think we have broad tastes, but I expect we haven't really: we have a house style, which is quite distinctive I think -- but we don't want to have one. I do know that the dull-but-worthy need not apply.
We find poems in a number of ways -- not least at our Writing Days, where poems which are started there (and occasionally actually completed) can sometimes make their way into our magazine, The North: and from there we may get to realise how good a poet is, and work with them towards a pamphlet or even possibly a book. Similarly, we meet poets when we're teaching -- on Arvon courses or at Ty Newydd for instance -- and I always say "networking" is really only human nature -- an editor can't help reading a poem differently if they've met the writer. (With some people I suppose networking isn't always an advantage!)
A good third of the Smith/Doorstop list comes from our annual Book & Pamphlet competition. Michael Laskey, one of our key (and bestselling) poets won our competition back in 1988 for instance. More recently a couple of our other bestsellers, Catherine Smith and Allison McVety, came to us originally through the competition. We've found some wonderful poets that way.
The Book Depository: What books are you most proud of having published?
The Poetry Business: Stanley Cook's Woods Beyond a Cornfield. Cook was born in the same year as Larkin and has many of his virtues, though he's a warmer voice, and ultimately quite unique. We did a big feature on him in The North back in 1995 when the book came out -- articles and poems -- which is still a good introduction. We have approximately three rooms full of this issue, or a box or two anyway, if anyone would like a free copy. It's a huge issue, quite heavy, so we'd be glad of a pound towards postage, or just call round with a forklift and take as many as you like.
The Book Depository: What books are you working on right now?
The Poetry Business: Had a quick count up and it seems we're working on fifteen collections, at various stages, from first discussion of a manuscript in progress through to proof stage of our pamphlet winners, and one title, the remarkable New & Selected by John Lyons, which is at the printers -- something of a find this book, you know. John won't mind me saying he can be a bit uneven, but distilled Lyons is quite heady stuff, and a joy to read, especially the poems about his Trinidadian childhood, full of sunshine and calypso. We're intending to do a cd of his reading too, such a rich wonderful voice -- there's already some Lyons audio on our website.
What else can I tell you? We work closely with our poets, as I say, sometimes over two or three years on the same book. Recently Ann and I have had intensive back-and-forth editorials with Yvonne Green, Allison McVety, Paul Mills and Jane Routh for instance, all of them very different but outstanding books, and all of them still at least a year away.
Even our pamphlets are an opportunity to work with poets -- and, as well as our very deserving competition winners -- Carole Bromley, Sally Goldsmith, Anna Woodford -- we're bringing out pamphlets by Forward-Prize Best-Poem-winner Sally Baker and by Mike di Placido. Mike incidentally is the only ex-professional footballer with an MA in Poetry -- and Theatre of Dreams features a sequence about his youth-trial year with Man U's greats -- the Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, George Best era.
This autumn too we publish our most weighty volume, Michael Schmidt's Collected Poems (initially in hardback), which brings together 35 years of his work. Michael is best known for Carcanet and PN Review, and as a critic, but actually his Selected Poems (which we published in 1997) was a Poetry Society Special Commendation, and this Collected includes the amazing book-length sequence Love of Strangers (which is otherwise out of print) and his amazing in another direction Resurrection of the Body, a book which got brilliant reviews in such as the Times and Independent. We love his poems.
And last but not least the overall winner of our 2008/9 competition, Michael McCarthy, who is an Irish priest living in Sherburn-in-Elmet -- a rather wonderful collection called At the Races -- we're hoping that handsome filly will come romping home (sorry, couldn't resist) -- it is a lovely, strong, imaginative, insightful sort of book, packed with life, and all with a real storyteller's voice, so we're hoping it'll get plenty of attention.
Actually it's sixteen books -- just remembered we're going to bring out an anniversary anthology, rather wittily entitled, Twenty Five Years in The North. That will be autumn next year -- a quarter century of poetry editing -- how did that happen? And more to the point, why? Equally surprising is we're just as enthusiastic now as we were when we started.
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